How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido by Stanley Pranin

Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) is known to most practitioners of Aikido as the art’s Founder. Who he was, and specifically what he did to create aikido, are little studied. Thus, aikidoka may have some vague notions of Morihei’s martial art and philosophy, but his life and vision do not play a major role in modern aikido.

In the postwar era, the Founder was often absent from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. His son, Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei were the central figures in the operation of the headquarters dojo. Morihei was not in charge of instruction as he was in his prewar school, the Kobukan Dojo. He would make sporadic appearances at unpredictible intervals. What’s more, he would sometimes lecture at length about aikido in esoteric terms that were not easily understood by the younger generation of Japanese.

So, if we are serious about the study of aikido, and we want to have an understanding of Morihei’s original concept, we must do some digging. Otherwise, we are cut off from the source, and risk missing the depth, beauty, and potential of the art as conceived by its Founder.

Avenues of study to discover the true principles of aikido

As the title of my presentation today suggests, a study of Morihei’s involvement in war and religion during the prewar era will provide us with many insights about how his thinking evolved.

Before we delve into our discussion, I would like to point out the some of the difficulties involved in researching these twin subjects as they relate to Morihei Ueshiba.

First, as a defeated nation, many Japanese even today prefer not to talk about World War II and the country’s militaristic past. This reluctance naturally applies to the Ueshiba family and the administration of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.

This presents an interesting dilemma. Morihei Ueshiba was very much a participant in Japan’s war efforts. He had extensive contacts among high-ranking officers in both the army and navy. Morihei taught for over a decade at Japan’s top military institutions as a combat instructor and strategist. He was tasked with preparing young men for battlefield encounters. He knew that many of his students would give their lives and suffer grave injury in warfare.

At the same time, the fact that a martial arts instructor had sufficient skills, charisma, and connections to walk among prewar Japan’s social elite is certainly a tribute to his exceptional character and discipline. For the founder of aikido, this is certainly a matter of great pride. And certainly, Morihei’s successors would mention these facts in speaking about the greatness of the creator of aikido.

So we have something like a case of cognitive dissonance insofar as concerns the Founder’s prewar activities. On the one hand, there is the desire to trumpet his many achievements. But on the other hand, there is guilt and embarrassment associated with his prominent role in the events leading to Japan’s defeat. It matters little that these are things that occurred 70 or 80 years ago.

Morihei standing left. Seated to his left, Sumi Deguchi, Onisaburo Deguchi; standing right rear, Aritoshi Murashige

The situation is similar in some ways with respect to Morihei’s religious activities, and even more complex. The Founder was a leading member of the Omoto religion, a so-called “New Religion” dating from the late 19th century. He was part of the inner circle of Onisaburo Deguchi, the charismatic sect leader and brain behind its spectacular growth.

The doctrine and religious texts of the Omoto played a great role in shaping Morihei’s spiritual beliefs. He regarded Onisaburo as his spiritual master and was extremely devoted to the causes that Deguchi espoused.

Here is where serious problems emerge. Not only was Onisaburo focused on expanding the activities of the sect and looking after its believers, he frequently provoke the Japanese government and engaged in politics and intrigue.

Onisaburo, too, was very well connected and consipired with a number of ultra-nationalist figures of the day to advance his religious agenda. This played into the hands of key right-wing leaders, especially those engaged in political and military activities in northern China.

These kinds of activities placed the Omoto on the government’s radar and led to its brutal suppression of two occasions, in 1921 and 1935. The latter event effectively crushed the religion and had a devastating effect on Morihei both professionally and privately.

So when we think of religion in Morihei’s life, we immediately think of the Omoto, yet this also leads us back to the arena of warfare and militarism through an alternate route. This is indeed a subject full of twists and turns that requires patient research to sort out.

Soldier during the Russo-Japanese War

The oldest known photo of Morihei as infantryman taken c. 1905

Let’s begin by documenting Morihei’s enlistment as a soldier while a young man, and the highlights of his involvement in military-related matters much later both in Japan and Manchuria.

In the prelude to the Russo-Japanese War, Morihei joined the 61st Army Infantry Regiment of Wakayama in late December of 1903. He was 20 years old at the time.

The build-up to the war was in response to Russian encroachments made in Northern China and Korea in the late 19th century. One of Russia’s aims was to secure for its use the warm-water port of Port Arthur for commercial and military purposes.

Map showing Japanese controlled territory during World War II in red

The Japanese reacted strongly to Russia’s military and trade activities in a region that it regarded as vital to its security and Asian empire-building intentions. The Japanese government made Russia’s manueverings a national cause among the populace, and patriotic fervor gained hold of Japan. There was a strong push for a military armament and many young men joined the army and navy. Morihei was one of them.

Morihei had to overcome his short stature to be accepted into the army, and went to amusing lengths–for example, hanging upside down–to increase his height. Once admitted, he excelled during basic training, being possessed of exceptional strength, and proved himself to be adept at the use of the bayonet. Such skills meant the difference between life or death for the infrantryman.

Morihei Ueshiba at about age 22 as infantry soldier

In one of his interviews, Morihei mentions being stationed in Dairen (present-day Dalian) in Northeastern China and having spent a year and a half at the front. It is uncertain the extent to which Morihei saw battlefield action. In his biography, Morihei’s son Kisshomaru, is somewhat vague about his father’s exact role. It does seem that he was at the front either as a foot-soldier or in a support capacity. Morihei recalled a number of wartime incidents where he miraculously survived by somehow being able to perceive the trajectory of bullets and cannonballs.

What is certain is that Morihei Ueshiba did spend a protracted period in the war zone and did witness the horrors of battle. There is no doubt that these experiences left a strong impression on the young soldier.

Expedition to Mongolia

To document the next occasion in which Morihei found himself in a war setting, we must fast-forward 20 years. Interestingly enough, the scene was again northern China, Manchuria and Mongolia, to be specific. Morihei was a member of the party accompanying Onisaburo Deguchi, leader of the powerful Omoto sect, to Mongolia. Their party was on a secret mission to this region, ostensibly for the purpose of establishing a utopian religious colony. Morihei’s served as a personal bodyguard to Onisaburo. We shall talk more about the relationship of the two shortly.

Morihei in Mongolia in 1924, second from right. Onisaburo is in center on small horse.


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